Preparing for open water swimming in a pool

BY KEVIN RICHARDS – 02 October 2017

Most of the bigger triathlon events in South Africa take place at the coast and events like the Ironman 70.3 and the full Ironman involve a proper ocean swim.  Not all triathletes have the benefit of living at the coast where they can regularly train and familiarize themselves with swimming in the ocean and often find it a bit daunting when faced with it.

Ocean swimming is unique and no two swims are ever the same. Conditions vary massively and swimming conditions can be hugely affected by wind, waves and currents.

Whilst none of these conditions can be replicated at your local pool, there are a few skills you can practice during a pool swim session that can better equip you for swimming in the ocean.


In a pool, swimming sessions involve keeping our heads down and following the black line on the bottom. There are no black lines in open water and the only way to ensure that you keep your direction is to lift up your head and look where you are going This you should do every 5-6 stokes to ensure a good line.

Over a distance of 1.9km or 3.2km’s, that involves a lot of head lifting. If you don’t practice and condition your neck you are going to end up with a very tired neck and shoulders.

Obviously, you can’t spend the whole swim session looking up, so allocate a small part of your session to lifting you head to the front every 5-6 strokes. Make sure when you practice this that you lift your head high and long enough to get a good glimpse of where you’re going.

It is difficult to maintain a good stroke and body alignment when doing this drill, but like anything ‘practice makes perfect’. Practice this drill regularly and you will save yourself a bunch of time by being able to sight regularly and not lose time by swimming off course.

Stabbing stroke: 

When swimming long distances in open water a long, relaxed and efficient stroke is what we all want. However, the number of times we get to utilize our ‘perfect’ stroke is not very high.  Some days we get lucky and conditions are beautiful, smooth and calm, but most often at the coast there is wind and surface chop.

In choppy conditions your long, efficient and gliding stroke becomes very hard to hold as you find your arms getting knocked out of rhythm by the chop.

An effective way to swim against chop is to stab your hands into the water. Your hands enter the water a bit closer to your head than they normally would and the glide forward takes place below the surface.

The positive action of stabbing your hand into the water, as opposed to sliding them in gently, eliminates them being knocked about.

Be clear that you are not shortening you stroke, but that you are simply shifting the entry point of your hands into the water hands. You still glide your arms forward in the water unobstructed by any chop and you can still get in a good effective pull.

Practice this technique whilst training in the pool. Every once in a while imagine you are swimming into the wind and chop.

Going with the flow: 

Swimming with the wind and chop from behind is much more fun and something that swimmers  can take advantage of.

When swimming with the wind and swell behind you, you will feel how the waves lift you from behind and push you forward. To maximize the benefit of this, you lengthen your stroke, glide longer and keep your body fairly rigid. You can also use your kick for more drive when you feel the swell picking you up.  Almost like bodysurfing each small wave.

A good way to practice this in a pool is to wear fins. The fins will give you more forward momentum and allow you to properly practice your gliding or ‘bodysurfing’.

under arm breathing:

Breathing in choppy conditions can be problematic and you are likely to swallow sea water at some stage. Unfortunately, that is going to happen to most swimmers in choppy conditions.

However, the amount you swallow can be significantly reduced by breathing under your arm. By turning your head slightly backwards so that you are almost breathing under your armpit you offer your mouth more protection when taking a breath.

This is an easy drill to practice and can be done during any swim set. Be sure to include it on you swim session.

Practicing these simple drills in a swimming pool will help you feel better prepared and more confident when tackling your next ocean swim in less than perfect conditions.

** Of course, there is no substitute for the real thing. Phobias and fears of swimming in the ocean are very real to a lot of people. In South Africa there are a number of coastal based swimming organizations you could approach for advice or help.

In Port Elizabeth you can get in touch with us via our website: for advice, help or even someone to swim with.

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